Henrick Ibsen A Doll’s House (Et Dukkehjem, written 1879) is better known than Ghosts (Gengangere, written 1881), and in my opinion, the former is also a more polished drama. Yet, when I think of one of these plays by Ibsen, I cannot but think of the other. I don’t remember which I read first, but I first read each of them at the same time about a decade ago. Since both plays question the dynamics of the spousal relationship, a woman’s status in the home in general, and the effects of immorality on parenting, they seem perfect echoes of each other.
While the classic feminist story in A Doll’s House has a hint of hope for Nora Helmer, who decides to speak up for her own rights as a woman and as a human being, Ghosts seems to me to be the gloomy alternative, as Mrs Alving overcomes years of subordination to her immoral (and now deceased) husband.
As A Doll’s House begins, Nora Helmer carries in a Christmas tree, and children soon enter with delightful chatter. Their family appears to be happy. Soon, however, one realizes that the dynamic between Nora and her husband (called Helmer) is superficial, and Nora’s life is that of a doll; he thinks little of her intellectual abilities and instead “toys” with her thoughts and emotions.
Ghosts, on the other hand, is dismal from the beginning. A “gloomy fjord landscape” is in the background, and a gray mist does not let up for the duration of the play. A limited scope of characters and a dwelling on events of the past make Ghosts a play almost devoid of hope. Although Mrs. Alving tries to look forward to the future (her life after her husband, who has died), she is still haunted by her husband’s life, as the ghosts of the past now inhabit her son’s world.
Even the names Ibsen gives the two women show the difference of hope in the two plays. In A Doll’s House, Nora is given a first name, and in fact she is listed by her first name in the written script whenever she speaks. In Ghosts, Mrs. Alving is seldom called by her first name (it is Helen), and rather is referred to as Mrs. Alving in the script when she has a line to say. She is regarded only as a wife, even ten years after her husband’s death.
Given its emphasis on the past, Ghosts, then, is really the story of the after effects of what happened thirty years earlier, when Mrs. Alving had recently gotten married. The stories are echoes of each other, and there are both similarities and some significant differences between the young Mrs. Alving and the young Nora, and between their husbands.
Although I’m a respected wife and mother in happy marriage relationship, I love reading the accounts of these two women, both of whom appear to me to be strong, admirable women, given their challenges. I prefer reading A Doll’s House because of the element of hope in it, but I also appreciate Mrs. Alving’s tragic story. I believe both plays are classic feminist texts, unfortunately applicable today.
From here, this post contains spoilers for A Doll’s House and Ghosts.
The Double Standards
It’s not until the end of A Doll’s House, that we learn that Nora’s husband, Helmer, cannot believe that he should sacrifice his honor for his wife when she commits indiscretions.
HELMER. I would gladly work night and day for you, Nora — bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.
NORA. It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done.
HELMER. Oh, you think and talk like a heedless child. (A Doll’s House, Act III)
Although Helmer disregard’s Nora’s comment, in Ghosts, Mrs. Alving explains how she has done just what Nora explains: she has sacrificed her honor (and her happiness!) for her husband. When Pastor Manders discovers that Mr. Alving had been a loose, immoral man, he is shocked. Covering it up, says Mrs. Alving, “has been my ceaseless struggle, day after day” (Ghosts, Act I).
Ibsen provides a scathing commentary on the differing standards of morality for men and women in the 1880s. In Ghosts, Pastor Manders refers to an unmarried pregnant woman as a fallen woman.
MRS. ALVING. Then what have you to say of me? I went and married a fallen man.
MANDERS. Why—good heavens!—what are you talking about! A fallen man!
MRS. ALVING. Do you think Alving was any purer when I went with him to the altar than Johanna was when Engstrand married her?
MANDERS. Well, but there is a world of difference between the two cases… (Ghosts, Act II)
Keeping Up Appearances
Keeping up appearances is everything for Helmer and Pastor Manders in the plays. In Ghosts, Pastor Manders believes it Mrs. Alving’s duty to continue to accept her husband, even with his loose morals and even ten years after his death. She is not to think about her own happiness. Further, when Mrs. Alving says she wants to admit the truth to her son, Pastor Manders counsels her not to. After thirty years of doing her “duty,” she’s no closer to satisfaction, and she’s sacrificed her honor by deceiving her own son.
MRS. ALVING. But what about the truth?
MANDERS. But what about the ideals?
MRS. ALVING. Oh—ideals, ideals! If only I were not such a coward! …
MANDERS. You have established a happy illusion in your son’s heart, Mrs. Alving; and assuredly you ought not to undervalue it. (Ghosts, Act II)
In A Doll’s House, Helmer expresses similar concern when he learns of Nora’s indiscretion: he mostly worries about the appearance in society, not about anyone’s happiness.
HELMER. … From this moment happiness is not the question; all that concerns us is to save the remains, the fragments, the appearance—(A Doll’s House, Act III)
Escaping the Doll’s House
But unlike the young Mrs. Alving, young Nora does abandon her cowardice. She has come to realize the double standard for men and for women, and she has become frustrated by the insistence on appearing perfect, a “doll.” Before Helmer knows of Nora’s indiscretion, he had warned her of significance of the mother on the child’s moral upbringing.
HELMER. … An atmosphere of lies infects and poisons the whole life of a home. Each breath the children take in such a house is full of the germs of evil. (A Doll’s House, Act I)
However, when Helmer later learns that he will not be publicly embarrassed by Nora, he no longer worries about her mothering. As Helmer scornfully lectures Nora’s choices, it helps her to finally realize the ways in which he has demeaned her. I love her realization in this passage.
NORA. What do you consider my most sacred duties?
HELMER. Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?
NORA. I have other duties just as sacred.
HELMER. That you have not. What duties could those be?
NORA. Duties to myself.
HELMER. Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.
NORA. I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are–or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them. (A Doll’s House, Act III)
Trapped in the Doll’s House
Although she tried to escape from her marriage, the young Mrs. Alving apparently did not have a sudden moment of realization of her duties to herself, her own honor, or her own pride. If she did, we are not told them; she continued to live as her husband and as society expected her to. By the end of Ghosts, however, when the effects of her husband’s life of duplicity are clear, the older and wiser Mrs. Alving has obviously come to regret her silence.
I can’t blame Mrs. Alving for staying in her marriage. In A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer had a place to escape to. Her friend Mrs Linde would eagerly provide a place to stay, and her best friend Doctor Rank had invited her company, and expressed his love for her.
A younger Mrs. Alving had also tried to run away from her husband. But when the family friend, Pastor Manders, had only reminded her of her “duty” and forced her out of his residence, she apparently had no choice but to return to her immoral husband. Mrs. Alving could not escape a life of living a lie. She was trapped in an oppressive society and in an oppressive marriage. One can only blame society for the double standards and for the restrictions on women.
Much as Helmer, in A Doll’s House, prophesied about a morally loose person impacting the next generation, in Ghosts, Mrs. Alving cannot escape her husband’s influence, even though he is now dead.
OSWALD. Everything will burn. All that recalls father’s memory is doomed. Here am I, too, burning down. (Ghosts, Act III)
Despite her best intentions, Mrs. Alving’s life is reduced to “ashes” in the end, both metaphorically and (in some senses) literally.
Although Mrs. Alving didn’t succeed in escaping as a young wife, the tragic consequences of her past are enough to warn us of the problems with such a society. Ibsen’s two biting plays about family dynamics and double standards both should be considered feminist classics.
Mrs. Alving’s story described the possible effect of a woman remaining in an oppressive and dishonest marriage, much as Nora’s story showed us a woman successfully casting off an oppressive husband. Nora had more resources to do so, and one can only hope (and wish) that oppressed women today can find the resources they need to avoid being haunted by the “ghosts” of the oppression.
A Doll’s House (unknown translator) and Ghosts (translated by William Archer) are in the public domain. I read the text from Project Gutenberg. Cover image above is from the Oxford World Classics edition.